I’ve always recognized the dissonance between my experience of a museum—any museum, really—and the experience I knew I should be having. How can one possibly worship at the altar of arguably humanity’s greatest contribution to the Universe—art—in a space meant only to appeal to one sense of perception? Let alone the self-conscious awareness that all the while one’s feet hurt, one is a bit hungry, one is a bit full, one needs to use the restroom, one has an urgent email or text message or missed call or tweet, begging for attention.
It was about a year ago that I began to understand exactly what Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists, was talking about when he posed the question of why museums are so uninspiring. If language is meant to convey ideas through the symbols we call words, art, then, has a moral duty (its only obligation, perhaps) to be the sensuous presentation of ideas. Art, de Botton writes, is “in the business of conveying concepts, just like ordinary language, except that it engages us through both our senses and our reason and is uniquely effective for its dual modes of address.”
Art may have dual modes of address, but visual presentation is the only mode catered to by most galleries. Movies, on the other hand, engage multiple senses and thus, it turns out, have a far easier time getting into our subconscious. Jonah Lehrer in The Neuroscience of Inception writes: “From the perspective of your brain, dreaming and movie-watching are strangely parallel experiences. In fact, one could argue that sitting in a darkened theater and staring at a thriller is the closest one can get to REM sleep with open eyes.” He continues to explain why:
When we’re engaged in intense “sensorimotor processing” — and nothing is more intense for the senses than a big moving image and Dolby surround sound — we actually inhibit the prefrontal [cortex, an area associated with logic, deliberative analysis, and self-awareness.] The scientists argue that such “inactivation” allows us to lose our self in the movie.
Putting the pieces together got me thinking: Are there sensorimotor conditions we can “engineer” in the museum environment so as to more readily lose oneself in the work being displayed? To facilitate dream-like states while standing on our feet?
Lately, I have been obsessed with crafting music playlists engineered specifically to jolt myself into the sort of unselfconscious immersion we regularly make pilgrimages to dark theaters and look to projectionists in hopes of finding. Keep in mind: the same way that the type of music can make or break a scene in a film, so too can it for your experience. Music should be picked specifically for the kind of art being observed. For example, listening to deeply pious choral music of the Renaissance (Allegri’s Miserere, Barber’s Agnus Dei) while staring in the face an allegorical art from the same period at the MET is an experience, if one is open to it, that can only be described as transcendent. Or perhaps, visiting Dinosaur Hall at the Museum of Natural History and actually listening to the score from Jurassic Park. It’s a “hack” that transforms an experience that is all too often prosaic, into something genuinely immersive and possibly even adventurous.